Dancer returns to teach

Alvin Ailey's Alicia Graf comes home for a class in studio where she began

January 17, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the Sun

Clarissa Clark, 14, has been dancing since she was 8 years old. She practices six days a week, arriving at the Ballet Royale Institute of Maryland about 3:30 p.m. and staying until 7 p.m. most nights.

Clarissa wants to be a famous dancer like Alicia Graf.

"I want to become professional," Clarissa said. "I want people to look at me the way they look at Alicia Graf."

So when she found out that Graf, who had trained at the Ballet Royale, would be giving a special class at her old dance school, Clarissa eagerly signed up.

"I can't wait," she said, moments before Sunday's class began at Ballet Royale's studio on Red Branch Road in Columbia.

Graf, 27, is the most famous dancer to emerge from Ballet Royale. The former Centennial High student is a principal dancer with the famed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which tours the world and is based in New York City.

"Of all the students I've had, this one was given, I believe, a gift from God," said Donna Pidel, who founded Ballet Royale in 1994 and was Graf's dance instructor. "She's definitely the most gifted student I have had."

Graf, whose parents, Arnie and Martha, reside in Ellicott City, lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her two brothers and sister. She keeps in touch with Pidel, visits when she is in town and agreed to teach a two-hour class for intermediate and advanced students, age 12 and older.

The class, which cost $25, was open to about 40 students from Ballet Royale and other dance studios.

"It was so gracious of her, I must say, to take time out of her schedule to come do this guest class," Pidel said.

"It's nice to have Alicia back," instructor Angela Romeo said.

Graf started dancing at age 3 and was seen by Pidel when she was 11. "I saw that she had a lot of talent," Pidel said, watching as Graf warmed up before the class. "She took some classes with me, and I guess the rest is history."

Graf would come to the studio after school and dance from 2 p.m. or 2:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. every day. "We spent more time here than we spent at home," Graf said of herself and her fellow dancers.

Tall, with long, slim legs, Graf wore her long curly hair in a neat ponytail as she stretched one leg, then the other, high over her head. She arched her back, stretching backward and forward. It looked effortless. Before a performance, she said, she typically warms up for two hours or more.

Graf left Centennial High School in 1996 before her senior year and moved to New York, where she danced and attended the Professional Children's School.

She performed with the Dance Theatre of Harlem for three years but then was sidelined by knee and ankle injuries. She went to doctor after doctor and endured several surgeries.

Finally, she reluctantly left the profession and enrolled in Columbia University, graduating in three years with a degree in history in 2003.

While she was in school, she didn't dance at all.

"For three years, I had a normal life," said Graf.

But a life without dance was not the right life for her. She was offered a job with JPMorgan Chase but decided to give dancing one more try, she said.

In 2003,"I decided to dance instead of take a desk job," she said. She performed with the Dance Theatre of Harlem and Complexions, and joined Alvin Ailey in 2005.

Graf said she is able to keep her ailments under control with rest and physical therapy.

"I'm 100 percent healed," she said. "I've learned to take care of my body better - to listen to my body more."

Pidel, who grew up in England, came to Maryland in 1982 as a teacher for the now-defunct Baltimore Ballet School. She now works with about 500 students in her studio, teaching classical and modern ballet, jazz, tap and other kinds of dance.

Pidell said seeing professional dancers is an important part of the learning process. She takes students on field trips to New York and other places, so they can see different techniques.

But there's nothing like taking a class from a top dancer.

"I always try to inspire dancers," Pidel said. "They work so hard and give so much. I think it's valuable for them to be inspired by someone who works in the profession."

Though some students were clearly nervous about dancing with such a well-known star, Graf made every effort to keep the mood light as the girls in leotards and tights lined up at the barres and got ready to work.

"Today is for me to see your personalities and for you guys to have fun," she said.

The focus of the class was on using the arms and back more than in classical ballet, she said. She demonstrated a series of moves slowly, with her students following every step, then repeated the moves to music.

"If you don't know a combination or you mess up, just make it up," she told the students.

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